Tree Line - Chapter Nineteen

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Chapter Nineteen

Owen drew in a long inhalation of filtered air through his mask, pulling on the slick, slippery moisture that was collecting there, drops that grew into something larger at the bottom of his nose. When the first, forced sniffle didn’t work to remove the sensation, he tried again, fighting the urge to reach up with his gloved hand to swipe across the tip of his nose. He knew that motion would just spread snot across the inside of his mask, making a long, thin layer that would eventually freeze and stick to his face, so he tried to project his thoughts elsewhere, tried to concentrate on anything other than his growing discomfort.

He was silent. They had all been silent as they walked back towards the empty building that was waiting for them in Fraser, their silence as thick as the darkness around them, as heavy, growing thicker as the snow became deeper around each of their steps. The only sound that moved with them was the wind, coming in infrequent gusts, quick tantrums of strong, frozen air that raged and shouted before going quiet again, before just becoming a steady, soft murmur.

As they walked, Owen wondered about what he could say, what he should say. What words could he string together that would make sense of their situation or would bring them something like clarity? He didn’t know. He suspected there was no way to make that happen, no way to make sense of what had transpired in the last few hours, so he just walked, Pat in front of him, Dave even further ahead, leading the three of them through the trees.

Owen kept turning his head back, squinting into the cold air and blowing snow, his eyes searching the gaps between the thin, pillar-like aspen trees. He thought he heard something there, hidden between the trees, and found himself searching the darkness for some sign of Angela or Chase. Owen thought that maybe the two of them might come back, coming to rejoin their small group, their previous outbursts forgotten, everyone’s rage drained and settled, all five of them ready to make peace.

It was ridiculous. Owen knew how naive he was being, even as he wished for it, like a child that hoped that his parents’ divorce could somehow be reconsidered and taken back. This wasn’t just about a handful of harsh words and still more unspoken bitterness. Those kinds of things could be forgiven, forgotten with enough time. What had just unraveled that night was something else entirely. This was about a danger: a concrete, powerful, deadly danger that could mean the end of all of them. There was no way to forget that. There was no way to forgive something that could steal away all of the time a person might need to finally come to something like forgiveness, take away all of their days. This was too large, too powerful.

“What’s going on, kid?” he heard. It was Pat’s voice, ragged with strain. Owen’s face and eyes snapped back to the space in front of him, seeing Pat just a few yards ahead.

“I don’t know. I thought I might have heard something,” he answered, softly, not sure if he had been loud enough for the older man to hear him over the angry wind. Owen lifted his eyes and watched Pat nod, his brow folded into long creases across his forehead.

“There’s nothing back there,” Pat finally said. Then, he added, bitterly, “Not anymore.”

Owen frowned at the man, his frown deepening with each breath he pulled through his mask, becoming sour in his mouth and twisting his lips further still. He felt acid churning in his core, a whirlpool of it chewing on the lining of his stomach since there was nothing else for it to work on, each slow turn getting more and more bitter, each rotation summoning still more bile.

“So, that’s it, then?” he finally asked. His voice was flat, hammered thin and weak by the weight of his exhaustion. “We’ve all just given up on them?”

Dave was walking ahead of the three of them, too far ahead to hear their words. He had his arms up anyway, folded at the elbows and pressed against his ears like he was trying not to hear anything, like he was an angry toddler trying to show the world his frustration, when all he was really doing was trying to shield his ears from the growing cold. Dave had given Chase his hat and gloves, wrapped him in the scarf that Angela had knitted for him a few seasons ago, letting him go, but offering what he could in that moment, that tiny bit of comfort.

“Kid,” Pat started, his jaw tight as he forced out his next words, “you know it ain’t like that. We’re not giving up on them. Angela and Chase, well, I think they gave up on us.”

“But,” Owen protested, immediately, almost cutting Pat off, then he stopped himself. What Pat was saying, what he was trying to say, felt like logic. His words felt like truth, even if Owen didn’t believe them, but even more than that Owen was worried that Pat might somehow convince him if they continued to argue. He was worried that whatever logic Dave had passed to Pat was a contagion that would infect his own mind, take away his own thoughts and leave him colder than the night that blew and darkened around them. Pat and Dave gave up. They gave in. Owen wasn’t sure he could forgive himself if he did the same.

“I just wish,” Owen started instead, maybe not trying to argue, but still stumbling as he fought to explain himself.

“I know,” Pat answered, stopping him. There was a kindness in Pat’s interruption, even more in his eyes. “I know. And, maybe one day we’ll unpack everything, really let it all out, but right now we need to get inside and get out of this weather.”

Pat looked at the younger man, watched for a reaction, a signal, then tried to draw it out of him by asking, softly, “Okay?”

Owen’s eyes had fallen, dropped to the ground under the weight of his despair and his fatigue, but eventually he lifted them to met with Pat’s for a quick moment. It was only a chance meeting as both of their eyes eventually drifted away with the snow, following the flakes as they spun and glided past them.

“Okay?” Pat repeated, less of a question that time.

Owen answered with a nod. He was wrapped in too many layers for the subtleties of either sincerity or sarcasm, or maybe Pat was just too tired to care, so the older man turned and started filling Dave’s empty footfalls with his own stumbling steps. Trudging ahead through the snow, leaning his weary body into the wind that pushed against them, Pat pushed on, leaving the unconvinced Owen behind.

“Okay,” Owen said, this time out loud, already leaning forward to follow Pat, but he stopped himself. He felt it, something in his shoulders, a tightness in his neck, that made him turn back again and look behind them, one more time, one last desperate time.

Owen stopped breathing. Hope did that to him sometimes, filled him with so much anticipation that he was worried he could ruin a moment with just an inhalation, just a tiny breath. So, he held the air in his lungs as he looked back into the spaces that separated the dense trees, hoping, desperate with hope. They could work something out. They were smarter than a simple virus, no matter how cunning it seemed, no matter how evil. They could find a way to keep their friends, find a way to fix the problems that had so quickly spun out of control.

Owen let his breath go when he saw that there were only trees behind him, silent, still, the space between them empty.

He shook his head, disappointed, maybe more in himself and his childish grasp at hope, than what he didn’t see behind them. Angela and Chase were gone, one because of dumb, ugly luck, and the other because of a guilt that was even more desperate and irrational than Owen’s naive wishes.

He started to turn back, to fall into line behind what was left of his friends, when he heard a soft hiss of a noise.

He froze.

It sounded like his name. Or, at least, the first syllable of it, stretched and long.

He turned back again.

“Chase?” he asked. “Is that you?”

It came again, a long moan of vowel sounds: distant, slow, and sad.

“Angela?” he called out, raising his voice. “Are you there?”

The trees didn’t answer him, tall and silent, rigid even in the wind, their roots too deep, too strong to allow a shudder or push.

Owen reached up and cupped his mitten around his right eye, shifting his hand a little to try to shield it from the wind, trying to find an angle to block the gusts, to see deeper into the darkness.

“Are you guys out there?” he asked, quieter now, afraid of being overheard, afraid he was being stupid. He took a step in the direction they were leaving behind them, a cautious one, moving closer to where he thought he heard the sound.

“It’s just the wind,” he thought, but he kept searching with his eyes, kept trying to find the shapes of his friends in the darkness. Another gust came, rushing through the trees, then moving past him, this time powerful enough to shake the pale columns, a sound like the entire world was taking in a deep, powerful breath through clenched teeth. Owen thought it sounded a little like his name, had that same jumble of sounds, but then, it didn’t sound like his name at all.

He squinted, fought to find detail in the darkness, but it was elusive, shadows drowned within still more pools of shadow, but Owen could still see the snow between the trees, the snow that filled every empty space. The powerful gust had dislodged some of the snow that stuck to the tops of the aspens, the flakes coming down harder, thicker between each pale tower. In the darkness the white flakes turned to grey, like tiny leaves of ash as they danced. With no other landmarks Owen concentrated his eyes on the snow, watched the flakes that raced, seeing the ones that drifted on slower winds, his eyes eventually finding the rare, empty pockets the flakes avoided, the spaces where the flakes turned from in search of clearer spaces, of faster winds.

He could see one space, maybe fifteen trees deep from where he stood, maybe twenty, a spot where he could just barely make out a shape. What he saw, or what he didn’t see, was approximately his size, a dark patch of emptiness that maybe was not as tall as Owen, maybe not quite as thin, but similar enough, the snow turning away from it, instead of racing through.

“Angela?” he asked, quietly, maybe afraid of spooking her, maybe just afraid of hoping again. He lowered his voice to just a whisper, cautious, and asked the darkness, “Angela, is that you?”

The dark shape, the void where no snow dared to cross, to dance, shuddered. At least, it looked like it shuddered, a movement so small that it could have just been a trick of Owen’s eyes, a spasm brought on by his hunger, his growing tiredness, or perhaps the dryness caused by the relentless winds that whipped over his face.

Owen took a step backward, something inside of him moving his feet without consulting him first.

“Chase?” he asked, weakly.

Something shifted inside of Owen. He no longer saw a gap before him, an emptiness. There was something there. Something was with him in the trees and he could feel it staring back at him.

“Angela,” he started to say, but the word fell apart as soon as it started to leave his mouth, crumbled like something brittle and old, becoming just a dry croak of a sound instead of a name. He tried to clear his throat, clean out the disintegrated, flaky word that clung in dry pieces to the inside of his mouth, and say, “This isn’t funny. Come out where I can see you.”

The void, the figure, didn’t move. It just stood there, peering through the trees, meeting Owen’s eyes with its own invisible orbs, neither one of them blinking as they stared at each other, neither of them looking away.

“Angela, that’s you, right?” Owen asked, pleaded.

He started counting the trees between them. For some reason it seemed important, like a fact that he needed to know, like it was something that had relevance.

Nine.

Ten.

Eleven.

Did that shape just lean towards him? Owen gasped, his other foot instinctively dropped behind his last, the tiniest, slowest retreat.

Twelve.

The wind roared through the grove again, a maraca shake of dry leaves above them, those few stubborn ones that refused to fall with their brothers and sisters a month or two before. The passing gust moaned out Owen’s name again.

Thirteen.

Fourteen.

Owen could feel the muscles in him tightening. He could feel the long muscles in his legs, the shorter ones in his arms, even the tiny clumps in his face clenching, coiling, readying.

Fifteen.

His eyes tripped over one of the trees, the rigid stalks clumped so close with other trees, throwing off his count, confusing it. He counted again.

Fifteen.

Sixteen.

The dark shape didn’t move. It just stood, waited, watched him. Owen thought he could hear something coming from it, a fast, rhythmic panting like a dog on a hot summer day, like Gus after retrieving his ratty tennis ball for the tenth or eleventh time.

“You can’t be hearing that,” Owen thought to himself. The winds were too loud, too fast. Was it the sound of his own blood in his ears? How could he tell?

Seventeen.

He was running out of trees to count, so his mind started to create rationalizations instead, focused on logic, on arguments.

He was hungry.

He was tired.

Those things were facts.

He couldn’t see anything. It wasn’t a shape, but a lack of one, a hole in the wind and nothing more.

That felt like fact too, but maybe it wasn’t.

If it were Angela or Chase they would have said something, called out to him, answered him.

If it were someone else, someone they didn’t know, they also would have called out, maybe approached, maybe held up their hands as they proclaimed that they meant no harm. If it was someone they didn’t know, someone who did mean to do them harm, it would have come already, a gunshot or a rush from the shadows with a gleaming knife or a heavy, rusty machete leading the way.

It was a statue.

Owen stopped breathing again. It wasn’t hope that took his air from him this time.

No. No. That was ridiculous. There was no such thing. Chase had just been scared. Everyone in Camp Corona knew that Chase had suffered some kind of a break, some sort of separation from reality. It was his mind that had created monsters from darkness and emptiness, that turned the ugliness of death into something that walked and menaced. None of that was real. It was ridiculous; just a frantic dream born inside of a mind that had been decimated by fear.

And yet, Owen couldn’t help but believe that he was staring into the face of whatever Chase claimed he had seen months before. He couldn’t help but think he was looking at whatever fairy tale the older DeWitt brother had invented to cope with the stress of his night alone in Fraser months before.

Owen took another step backward. This one, this step, was intentional, something he thought about rather than just did. It was slow, careful, backing away from whatever was ahead of him, partially obscured by the trees, hidden in the darkness and panting as it watched him.

He didn’t know what it was, what a statue might actually be, so he followed the same logic he had heard about mountain lions and bears. Just back away. Keep your eyes on it. Don’t present yourself as weak. Don’t present yourself as something to be chased. Don’t back down.

He tried to remember Chase’s ravings, tried to recall specific words that the troubled young man might have said, but like everyone in the camp Owen had just ignored him, just heard Chase’s ramblings as mental chaff. The more Owen concentrated, the more he tried to recall specific phrases, specific details, the less he was able to summon. He could feel adrenaline pushing into his blood stream like it was being loaded into him with a syringe, each drop of liquid impulse stealing more and more of his rational thoughts.

Whatever it was, whatever stared back at him in the dark, didn’t move. It didn’t lunge at him like he expected, didn’t crane its neck around the closest stock of aspen that obstructed its view. It just stood there, motionless, its dark eyes hidden in a face already lost in deep shadow, panting, snorting at the air, gulping it fast and hard, so much so that Owen thought he could hear it even over the inconsistent roars and cries of the wind.

Owen took another step backward, moving away from it, the edge of his shoulder coming into contact with one of the trees. He was moving slowly, carefully, but his adrenaline shook inside of him with the unpredictable arcs and pathways of lightning, jangled and jumbled inside of his veins, so clumsy and charged that the light touch of the tree on his shoulder blade was enough to throw his balance. Hardened from the cold, nearly frozen solid, the trunk was more like a lead pipe than a tree, so it didn’t give at all, didn’t budge, forcing Owen to move, to react. He jerked away from its touch and suddenly found all of his weight on the wrong foot. He spun around the thin tree trunk, an unexpected motion, his shoulders and feet feeling only barely connected, only tangentially cooperative.

He tried not to call out, tried to keep himself calm, but a “whoa” slipped from between his lips as the traction under his foot finally let go, and let him fall. It came out louder than he wanted, louder than he meant, then suddenly Owen was on his back. Thin layers of powdered snow pushed away from him like the soft flakes were riding the ripples of an impact tremor, a shockwave as Owen’s thin, angular body hit the frozen ground and decaying aspen leaves, releasing energy in all directions.

He could picture the thing on top of him now, expected it, all claws and teeth and rotten breath, but as he threw his head left and then right within the loose pocket of his parka’s hood, flailed his limbs to try to get up from his prone position, he realized he was alone. He was untouched. A few frantic jerks of his arms, wild kicks of his legs, and suddenly he was sitting up. Owen’s eyes shot back to that spot nearby where he saw it, or more accurately, didn’t see anything at all.

There was nothing there.

He looked again, looked at the trees, the ones so close that he felt like he had to recount them, the pale, sporadically-spaced pillars that stood tall and even, everything cloaked in inky shadows. The dark void that had been there, that had been watching back at him, was gone, its space truly empty now, filling with blowing snow.

He blinked his eyes, rapidly, trying to clear his vision, to adjust to the new angles, the new vantage point of his semi-prone position, desperate to make sure that there was nothing standing before him. His eyes were locked on that space again as Owen struggled to get his feet under him, his vision pulled as if by a powerful magnet, but it didn’t fall on anything. There was no figure lurking nearby or a dark shape that might have been something like a person, a void with a predator’s eyes.

Nothing.

It’s disappearance was a relief. It pushed a long held exhalation past his lips, but Owen stopped halfway. If that shape was no longer where he first saw it, he wondered, where exactly had it gone?

For the second time his mind went to fangs and talons, to surprise attacks on his defenseless, semi-prone form, so when he felt a hand come down on his shoulder, he let out a powerful scream.

“Whoa, kid,” Pat said. He tightened his grip on the younger man’s shoulder, trying to reassure him, but only making him squirm even more under the weight of his hand. “Easy.”

“Did you see it?” Owen asked, trying to climb to his feet again, bouncing off both the tree that had toppled him and the older man who was reaching out to steady him. Owen’s balance was still so far away, still elusive. “Did you see the shape over there?”

He pointed and Pat dutifully followed the path of Owen’s arm, but the stern expression on Pat’s face didn’t change.

“There’s nothing out there, kid,” Pat said, softly. His eyes moved to Owen and then back to the space the younger man had pointed at, still searching. “What do you think you saw?”

Owen shook his head. It wasn’t an answer, but it felt like maybe it was, felt like an expression that could mean something. It gave him a moment to calm down, to refocus, to catch his breath.

“I… I… don’t know,” Owen struggled to say. Even with that gracious moment, he was still winded from his scream.

“Was it Chase?” Pat asked, again searching the stark, empty trees with his eyes. He sounded curious, maybe hopeful.

“No,” Owen answered. “I don’t think so. It was a figure, but I don’t think it was Chase. It was… panting.”

“Panting?” Pat repeated.

“I thought,” Owen started, then he shook his head, his face growing red underneath his face mask, an embarrassed blush that he hoped Pat couldn’t see. “I guess I thought maybe it was one of the statues Chase is always talking about.”

Owen chuckled lightly, but neither he or Pat believed it.

“Well,” Pat started, pausing, looking for proof of what Owen claimed he had seen or maybe hoping to disprove the younger man’s theories. “I don’t know how likely that is, but I suppose we should get inside, just to be safe, right?”

Pat caught Owen’s eyes, his embarrassed expression, and he smiled at the younger man. His face, like Owen’s, was hidden, so Owen only saw the older man’s smile in the movements of Pat’s white beard that jutted out around the edges of his molded, paper painters mask.

“Dave said the condo is just up ahead,” Pat added.

Owen nodded. Being inside sounded good.

“Let’s go, kid,” Pat said. He lifted his hand from Owen’s shoulder and pointed to a spot just ahead of them where they could see Dave standing, his arms pressed against his bare ears. “We don’t want to piss off the general, do we?”

“I guess not,” Owen agreed, smiling weakly.

As the two of them started walking, Owen could feel his fear dissipating, leaking from him like air from an old, tired balloon. Each step brought him a sense of relief, but even with everything suddenly making more sense, with everything suddenly feeling more normal, more rational, there was still a tiny chunk of that fear there, persistent, strong, and sticky. Even as he followed Pat, he felt a tiny seed of nervousness that he couldn’t shake, that he was afraid would sprout and grow within him. So, as they walked, all three of them within just a couple of arm lengths, he kept looking back, over his shoulder, afraid of what might be behind them.


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